The Phyrexian Circus Derails: Hallucinations from the MTG Underground

“When you have understood my words, forget them. If you cannot understand my words, ignore them. I insist on your freedom.” – Rasputin Dreamweaver, from “Reflections on Kerouac”

Rasputin

Darkness gives way to the light.

It washes over my face. With it comes a cold, morning breeze. A shiver runs through my prone body. I roll over and have to catch myself as I land on the tattered floorboards of a front porch. I lean against my perch for a moment, letting my eyes adjust, slowly coming to understand that I had been sleeping atop a large blue cooler. On the porch. On a porch. I do not have a porch.

Confusion and curiosity swirl together as I lift the lid. Regret is immediate. Inside there are a half dozen Garden Gnomes. I shut the lid and look around. A paper has been delivered. Aside from the cooler, the porch and house look like a snap shot of Suburbia anywhere in the world. Yet for all its familiarity, I recognize none of it.

Fear ushers its way through my throbbing skull. This house, in all of its seeming innocence, has a large blue cooler full of lawn gnomes sitting nonchalantly on its porch. This is madness. The danger of this place is as thick as the bitter saliva in my throat. I need to leave this place before it is too late.

I look across the yard to the street. There is a trail across the lawn, through the flower beds, leading to the porch, leading to my feet. Perhaps I was dragged here. Closer observation suggests that a large container was likely the cause of the disruption in the otherwise well manicured lawn. Like a chest. A storage device. Or a cooler.

The horror sets in and I race across the lawn for safety. I hold my head steady against the early rays and the thundering pain inside. I stagger off the grass and into the street. I look back, terrified of what might be chasing me, but it is only my shadow in pursuit. I am safe for the moment, so I stop to try and map out an exit.

I head to the street corner, trying to delve information any way I can. I am at the crossroads of San Fernando Mission and Balboa. I must be in the valley. But where? How? Which way do I go? Desperation comes with a shiver, and I scour the landscape for solutions. I can see a Target in the distance, and only the sickness in my guts keeps me from breaking into a sprint. I forge my way onward, seeking clothes as shelter against the California cold and a public place to protect me from the madness in my wake.

Target is closed. For how long? I reach for my phone to check the time.

It is not there.

I have lost my phone.

Where?

In the box of gnomes? On the porch of the house of unknown horrors?

The only thing I know for sure is that I can not go back. My phone is lost, but I escaped with my life. There is a Jack in the Box across the street, a fast food establishment that I am only vaguely familiar with, as they did not exist in the Midwest of my childhood, but food is a threat to my body that will surely be rejected. But I should be able to discover the time and procure some orange juice, which is as close to salvation as I can imagine in a moment like this.

The house comes back in to view as I make my way inside. I can see the ominous cooler sitting idle, mocking me with its stillness, promising to swallow me like it did my phone if I only give it the chance. What kind of savage people keep such a grotesque display of evil upon their doorstep?

Or worse, what if it is not a possession of the homeowner at all? What if some villainous creature of the night dragged it there, and then dropped me mercilessly upon it, hoping for the persecution of morning to descend upon me, leaving me powerless to explain myself as I scramble through this confusion and my pain-addled memory?

No, it is best to write my phone off as gone forever.

By the time I am drinking my orange juice the Target is open, or at least the human caricature that provided it suggests. I make my way back outside. So cold. Far too cold for Los Angeles. Is it October? My receipt says so. It is a Sunday morning in this distant land, and I curse it bitterly as I make my way to acquire clothes and some sense of direction.

I leave Target in a hoodie and some sweat pants, ready to face the next challenge in my escape from this strange morning. It will never cease to amaze me the way people react when you ask them where you are, as if not knowing your location were something inhuman. Perhaps people do not wake up in strange places they have never been enough to have empathy. Perhaps they never saw the Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland. It is a sign that our civilization is on the decline, but not so much that some awkward conversation will not eventually provide answers. Not yet anyway.

I am in Grenada Hills, and if I take the 236 toward Encino I can catch the 150 line back home. The only problem is that the 236 runs once an hour on Sundays. And, naturally, it went by while I was in the store. I must survive for an hour just a block from where I awoke. If I manage to do so, I will be free. I must prevail.

An hour later I am home. I have pieced some of my night together, but I am still too disheveled and disoriented to work it out. I take a quick shower and crawl into bed. Sleep is my only Salvation.

But what dreams may come, in the sterile hours, when the sun offers no solace, are the works of deprivation and spun with the fabric of malice. The hours pass, but I find no comfort or rest. I rise more tired than when I fell into the sheets, and suddenly I am possessed with a hunger so ravenous that it threatens to never be satisfied.

I stumble to the kitchen, craving the flesh of my enemies, but the contents of my refrigerator mockingly remind me that I am a vegetarian. I make due with what I have, questioning the rules that govern my existence, but once I have eaten my frustration fades and I work at once more facing the blur of the last twenty four hours.

What can I remember?

I played Legacy at some comic shop in Pasadena. It was the worst run event I ever experienced, and in spite of inconsistent round times and a complete lack of match slips for a sizable event, I managed to make top 8. Doing so felt more like a curse than a victory, adding to the time I had to endure the madness.

My deck is still on the table beside a half consumed beer. I lost in top 8, sad to not win the Mox Ruby but relieved to be done. Ethan drove me back to the Valley, dropping me off at home. I was sober and tired, so I set about fixing that.

The Serum Powder cured my weariness and the Jameson cured my sobriety. I set out to catch a bus, headed to some restaurant deep in the Valley to meet a girl I knew years before. It promised to be a disaster, so I packed some road beers and a pint of whiskey. When calamity is certain, it is important to find a way to enjoy it.

The cloudy recollection of the night leaves me wondering if it started as the nightmare I anticipated or if it became so because I was hellbent on making it one. In the end it does not matter, the whims of fate will have their way with us from time to time, but in the days between we are much more cruel masters of reality.

As things went down in flames, I escaped to the bar across the highway. My only clear memory of being there was my eventual rescue. I was out back sampling more Serum Powder with some bikers, telling tales of my reckless abandon and befriending fiends from a different world. They were a fantastic audience, but they turned vicious in a flash as Jacob tried to pull me away.

They were ready to murder him for his audaciousness. If he would have been wearing shoes, I suspect they would have taken them from him. As Jacob tried to explain that he was a friend, that he was my ride, they wailed and gnashed their jagged teeth at him. Fear ran down his brow like sweat, and just before they descended upon him with unrestrained carnage, I pulled through the haze and spoke out in a moment of clarity.

It was much like when Max leaves the land Where the Wild Things are, and there was no wild rumpus after my departure. But Jacob promised good things to eat, so I used my words to spare his life and we headed out into the night, supposedly to his new haven not far away.

Jacob had his new girlfriend with him, much to my delight. I liked her much more than I liked him. She was just a better class of person. The kind that wore shoes in public. While Jacob seemed to fancy himself a hobbit, she proved to be a more magical creature. She had some green mana in her bag and a quarter ounce of spore frogs. It was the perfect way to restore order to the night.

I was not surprised to find that Jacob’s new residence was a faded, dirty couch in a garage full of forgotten clutter. There was a pool outside, but it belonged to the people that lived in the house, not the uncivilized garage dweller. Jacob said he was forbidden to use the pool because people were sleeping, but I suspected it was because he wandered the streets of Los Angeles without regard for where he placed his bare feet.

Since swimming was off limits (probably for the better considering how much I had drank over the course of the evening,) we ate the spore frogs and opted to go for a walk. It was a beautiful night, and although it was slightly cooler than normal, we were restless and sitting in a poorly lit garage would not suffice.

As we wandered the sidewalks I listened to them talk. They were in the early courting phase of their budding relationship, and it did not take long for me to lose interest in their words. I grew bored, and in time I felt agitated. I tried to pick a fight by verbally abusing Jacob, but he would not give in. I decided it was for the better, not wanting his dirty feet anywhere near me, and I decided it was urgent that I put some distance between myself and those shoeless abominations.

I fell a few steps back, but they were too lost in the moment to take much notice. I remained quiet and slipped further and further behind, and at the first opportunity I headed off by myself.

There is nothing certain about what happened between that moment and when I awoke on the porch. But for as thick as the fog of memory is at times, it still provided glimpses and shadows of what may have been. With great strain, I try now to wrench them from my mind.

I grew tired and wanted to crash. I set about finding the garage, only to discover with horror that all the houses looked the same. I panicked, but almost immediately chastised myself for over reacting. I found the house right where I remembered it.

I made my way into the garage only to discover tragedy had befallen Jacob’s home. Someone had stolen his couch and rearranged the boxes that cluttered the rooms. They had built shelves as well, and put Jacob’s cooler on one of them, probably to make room for removing the couch. I realized that I would need it for my quest to find my friend and his absconded furniture, so I pulled it down and took it outside.

I was unsure if the villain that took the sofa also had my friend, or if he was still wandering the night. I hoped, for his sake, that it was the latter. He would be horrified when he discovered his loss, but at least he would be spared the cruelty of a kidnapping.

I marched across lawn and drive in search of my friend. I found him before long, but I was disheartened by the state he was in. Someone had turned him into a porcelain gnome, probably to punish his disregard for foot ware. I lifted him into the cooler to keep him safe, and I carried on with a new facet to my mission. Not only did I need to find his couch, I also needed to find the witch that did this to him, in the desperate hopes of returning him to his usual irreverent state.

As I traveled on, I found evidence that the witch had been busy. I found numerous of Jacob’s friends in the same sad, ceramic state. I placed them inside to keep him company and marched on through the never ending maze of Suburbia. But try as I may, I found nothing that I sought.

I gave up, and decided the only thing I could do was return to his home and wait for the dawn. The problem was, I had woven myself on such a twisted path that I had no hopes of retracing my steps, and I no longer knew where to find my destination. The repetitive appearance of the landscape was maddening.

I had an epiphany.

If all the houses looked the same, perhaps they were the same.

If all the houses were the same, they were all the house where Jacob lived.

I marveled at the brilliance of my mind and headed to the house in front of me. It was more horrific than before. Not only had someone stolen his couch, but while I was out seeking answers, they stole his garage as well. It was a bleak observation, and it was with heavy hand and heavy heart that I dragged the cooler up onto the porch, checked once more on Jacob and his friends, and, finding them still frozen, laid upon the cooler. If the demon that was destroying my friend came for him while I slept, it would have to go through me first.

grinning demon

 

Fuck.

I better call Jacob.

But that is impossible. I lost my phone.

 

dark-depths

“The madness of the eyes is the lure of the abyss. Sirens lurk in the dark depths of the pupils as they lurk at the bottom of the sea, that I know for sure- but I have never encountered them, and I am searching still for the profound and plaintive gazes in whose depths I might be able, like Hamlet redeemed, to drown the Ophelia of my desire.” -Jean Lorrain, “Monsieur de Phocas”

 

I arrived in Los Angeles in February of 2010.

I knew no one. I had never been there. I transferred my job and set out across the country, burning every bridge to ensure I could not turn back. It was reckless. I had no idea where I would live or how I would survive. But I would have to figure it out.

It took a few months to get settled, but once I did I set out to find somewhere to play cards. Before long, while drafting at a small shop called Knightware in Studio City, and I heard about an upcoming Legacy tournament. I knew nothing about the format, but I had a small Vintage collection. How hard could it be?

I perused the Source for information, but all I found was printed noise. Everyone was convinced whatever they owned was best. Their pet deck was what you should play. Everything else? Even if they spouted off about it the week before, it was smoldering excrement.

I gleaned what I could from the internet drivel, and set about in search of deck lists. The only thing I found was from an atrocious era when Flash ruined everything. I reached out to people from my homeland, hoping for some deeper insight, but the direction I got was less than inspiring.

“Play Brainstorm. And Force of Will. And Jace. Oh, play Counterbalance and Sensei’s Divining Top. Then just add some win conditions. Probably Tarmogoyf.”

That just sounded miserable.

I decided to set out my collection and compare it to the ban list. I removed all the banned cards, and looked at what was left. I realized that I missed something, so I looked back at the list. It had to be a mistake. I pulled it up again online, but the omission was still glaring back at me.

Mystical Tutor was legal.

I could play four copies.

I returned to the cesspool called the Source, and I hunted out whatever deck best exploited this horrible mistake. It did not take long to discover how powerful, consistent, and overwhelmingly broken Reanimator was against the rest of the format. It was the best deck and nothing was close.

How was this possible?

I asked people that I trusted, and the general consensus was that it was easily the best deck, but for some reason no one played it. The more I inquired the more it sounded like no one knew what the hell they were doing.

So I built Reanimator.

And they decided that they would ban Mystical Tutor, but it would not take effect until after my tournament.

The only games I lost all day were ones where I was fucking around instead of taking the correct line of play. I did not drop a match, and I split the finals of a 76 player event with a guy playing Merfolk. I would have crushed him without effort, but it was coming up on midnight. I still needed to make my way over or under the hill, where, somewhere in the darker and less respectable part of Hollywood, there was a girl waiting to waste away the rest of the night in a haze of Green Mana and Jameson.

For my efforts I left with an Underground Sea and a Tundra. I had them in my pocket for the duration of a night that I cannot recollect. Against all odds, they made it home eventually and were tucked neatly into my collection.

Winning a big tournament on my first go set the tone for my future endeavors. I put in a reasonable amount of work, aside from not actually playing a game with the deck, and it paid off. I would never outshine that level of effort, but I would be expected to prove myself again.

I could try to hack together some line of explanation of how I made it from that night of winning my first big Legacy event to my top 8 loss and subsequent Night of the Garden Gnomes, but it would be a futile gesture. If you have been reading my blog this long, I am sure you have some idea.

In the rest of my time in Los Angeles, I played a range of Legacy decks. There were times where I felt like nothing could stop me, and times where I wondered how I was managing to win games. Overall I performed rather well, eventually making top 8 of the first SCG Open in LA, a story that has been shared many times.

But overall, I never really cared much for the format. For the most part, it always seemed like some perverse landscape designed specifically so people could play Brainstorm. Many years later, it still feels that way.

Which is not to say that I do not love or appreciate brainstorm. I have cast my share. I played four in Vintage, I played four in Legacy, and I understand all of the intricacies of the card. I have heard people prate on and on about it, explain all about how it is skill testing or whatever rhetoric they need to justify it to themselves, but eventually brainstorm loses its charm. There is nothing wrong with it, but when it becomes the sole reason to play a format, there is something severely wrong.

I understand there are other things you can do in the format. I play Charbelcher because the only thing I want to do in Legacy is kill people on the first turn. It is much more gratifying than casting brainstorm, and it helps me limit the amount of time I spend playing the format to just about the amount I can handle.

I have been writing this since before the Legacy Grand Prix in Seattle, and I think at some point the purpose was to discuss why I decided not to go. I just had no real interest in playing the format on a large scale. It was nothing specific that brought it about. Perhaps I have been having too much fun immersing myself in Oldschool Magic and spending more of my energy in my Vintage resurgence. Maybe I just grew bored.

Whatever the case, when I decided not to travel for the event, I also decided to cull back down to just one Legacy deck. I kept the People’s Cannon and took apart Dredge and Lands, both of which I would play occasionally but had no strong attachment to. If I was going to play less of the format, there was no need to cling to its baggage.

I sold off the pieces that did not transfer over to Vintage, and I picked up the last few cards I wanted for my Oldschool collection. A month later, I do not miss the cards or regret my decision. In the end, it is important to do what makes us happy, regardless of the perception from outside. For a long time people thought of me as a Vintage player. Somewhere along the line, I became a Legacy player. Now, I am mostly associated with Oldschool, though my MTG Underground movement was about much more than the format and the cards. I have cultivated these perceptions because those were the things I was passionate about at the time of those impressions.

From time to time, I will still write about Legacy if it interests me. It could be anything from talking about the Mental Misstep era and my Four Horsemen deck, or I may go on for multiple updates about how Vintage was perfect before the Modern Frame. I will certainly carry on about Oldschool, and eventually share more decks. In the mix, I will carry on about the life I have lived and the life I am living. There is no telling where this train is going. The tracks lack definition or direction.

not like the others

 

I have no idea where I am going. I have only a vague knowledge of where I have been. But right now, in this moment, I am here, and of that I am absolutely certain.

The Doctor is exiting the Building.

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